The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 22. George Henry Lewes

At first, however, the influences under which she fell were not those of writers anxious to guide public feeling in political and social questions. Before settling in London she had been a temporary member of the Bray household at Coventry, and had there come to know some notable thinkers; it was thus natural enough that, in 1850, she became a contributor to The Westminister Review, which was then being taken over (from John Stuart Mill) by John Chapman, as an organ of advanced theological and philosophical thought, and, to a considerable extent, of the teaching of Comte and his followers. In the following year, she became associated with Chapman in the conduct of the Review, and, although she shrank from being put forward as editress, it is clear that, before long, she bore the chief burden of the office. Herbert Spencer, one of the leading lights of the circle to which she now belonged, among other friendly offices, introduced her to George Henry Lewes, who, at that time, was editor of The Leader. Attracted by the extraordinary intellectual vivacity and quickness of sympathy which, together with brilliant scientific and literary gifts, distinguished Lewes, she formed a union with him. His own home had, for some time, been broken up; on his three sons, she bestowed the kindliest maternal affection. He showed to her, as well he might, unsurpassable devotion, and watched over her literary labours, and the fame they brought her, with unremitting care. But, even after she had become famous, her life with him long remained isolated, except for the admirers of her genius whom he brought to their house. It would be surprising if, especially in her earlier works, a tinge of melancholy, which generally tended to take the nobler form of renunciation, were not perceptible; but the personal trials of her life never, as the whole series of those works shows, even momentarily overthrew the balance of her moral judgment. And this is of the greater importance as applied to her writing, inasmuch as she never ceased to regard it as the most responsible among the activities of her existence. “Writing,” she declares, soon after she had first attempted fiction, “is part of my religion, and I can write no word that is not prompted from within.”

Besides a translation of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity (1854) she was now at work on a variety of subjects brought into her hands in the way of journalistic duty; and it is curious that it should have been an article (of the superior “smashing” kind) on The Evangelical Teaching of Dr. Cumming which first convinced Lewes of “the true genius in her writing.” It was about this time that they spent three weeks at Weimar (his Life of Goethe was then on the eve of publication), going on thence to Berlin—an experience of great value as well as interest to her. It cannot be said that her hand as an essayist was heavy—even against Theophrastus Such this charge cannot fairly lie; but, the slighter the texture of her work, the more arduous she seemed to find the process of unloading her learning within its limits. When, in her novels, she essayed short introductory or discursive passages after the example of Fielding or Thackeray, ease was the one quality which she could not command. On the other hand, whatever she wrote, even, as it were, in passing, was invariably lucid; and no pen has ever better than hers illustrated the truth of her own assertion: “the last degree of clearness can only come by writing.”

At last—when “we were very poor”—her companion discovered the hidden treasure, or insisted on its being brought to light. Like a born novelist, she thought of the title The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton, almost before she had shaped the subject of the story in her mind; but she was speedily in the midst of it and had resolved on its forming the first of a series to be called Tales from Clerical Life. Amos Barton, the first part of which appeared in the January, 1857, number of Blackwood’s Magazine, was followed, in the course of the same year, by the two other tales of the series, Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story and Janet’s Repentance. All three bore the signature George Eliot—a name chosen, almost, at random and thus admirably adapted for giving rise to the widest variety of wild conjecture. Even Thackeray thought the author a man; but Dickens was sure of the woman. Both great novelists were warm in their admiration, as, also, were Bulwer Lytton, Anthony Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell—a pleasant testimony to the generous temper of literary genius in the Victorian age. We pass by the more doubtful tribute of admiration offered by an impostor whose impudent pretensions to the authorship of Scenes, and, afterwards, of Adam Bede, were not quashed until nearly two years had passed.